I’ve never been much for traveling or celebrations but sometimes it’s good to do the opposite of your fallback impulse, so I booked a trip to New York for my birthday. My problem with travel goes back to immigration—my gut feeling whenever I have to leave any place is that it’s a punishment or exile; as for holidays, I just rarely feel up to the occasion when I’m told to be up for it. The better a time and the bigger the group, the more miserable I tend to be. But for my 46th birthday I decided to mark the occasion and try to enjoy it.
I flew into LaGuardia in the morning, took a bus to Jackson Heights, and the F train to Manhattan. I had a 1pm lunch date with my podcasting pal GIl at Katz’s but was about an hour early so I got off at 34th Street and started walking south down Broadway. Walking is probably the main reason I come back to New York. To navigate its ceaseless sidewalk stream is one of life’s special pleasures. No one walks like a New Yorker—each and every one goes forward with little to no acknowledgement of anyone else, focused entirely on their own unique and vital destination. The fact that more than half now have their faces magnetically drawn to glowing screens adds another level of complexity to the enterprise.
Greeting Gil in the roped off waiting area/holding pen at Katz’s, I was surprised to learn he’d never been there before. It’s often the case though that a local will ignore landmarks and popular attractions. This was my third visit. I like the place for many of the same reasons I like the city it’s in: it is brusque, loud, overpriced, and out-of-date, but carries itself as if it is the center of the universe and will continue to be so until it serves its last latke. Gil insisted on paying for my $19.95 pastrami sandwich after learning it was my birthday, then led me to a Soho bookstore. Going to an unfamiliar bookstore after these last years of being involved in the literary racket is a different experience. Now the jackets of books I’ve reviewed call attention to themselves like forgotten friends. It’s similar for Gil, as he sees past and future interviewees all over the shelves.
He left me outside a coffee shop in Union Square where I was to meet Alina. It was much too loud to talk inside so we walked to a nearby park named after Peter Stuyvesant. She told me about the article she was working on about a couple of explorers who were building their very own spaceship after already colonizing the North and South Poles and I told her about how the book review racket had suddenly dried up for me and about how I was at a loss on what to do with the book I finished a year ago. Then we walked toward Chinatown to pick up her daughter from daycare.
I peeled off at Canal and made my way toward the Jane Hotel in the West Village. I’d stayed there a couple years ago with Shay and there was a possibility that that fact would be a drag on the festive occasion of this visit. Was I trying to wallow in past failure? No, luckily, as it turned out, she’d just had good taste in hotels and I wasn’t familiar with any others so I went with a known quantity. A single at the Jane is tiny and resembles a ship’s quarters with shared showers and latrines down the hall. It was ideal for my purposes. I rested an hour, then went back out.
On 8th Avenue in Chelsea I stopped at a dumpy tavern I recognized and had my first birthday drink. The Billymark has countless photos of the Beatles and other bygone rockstars on its walls but little else in the way of charm to recommend it. It’s the kind of place you go because it’s on the way to somewhere else and the drinks will be cheaper here than the place you’re going. I gulped down my Wild Turkey and kept walking.
It was a little early to meet my folks for dinner so I stopped at a sports bar next door for another drink. I paid about double the Billymark’s rate for a whiskey and watched a couple innings of a Mets game on the TV. I’d chosen Keens after a quick online search for oldest New York steakhouses and it didn’t disappoint. The ceilings were covered with upside-down churchwarden pipes, the walls with old portraits, newspaper caricatures, and hunting scenes, and our plates were entirely occupied with expertly-prepared pieces of beef.
My parents had taken the bus down from Boston and my mother had brought along a garment bag full of birthday clothes which now awaited in Keens’ coatcheck. We made plans to meet at the Whitney the next day and went our separate ways. They were going uptown to stay with friends, while I was going to the Lower East Side to have a final birthday drink with a new acquaintance. Boris is a fellow emigre whose second book I reviewed earlier in the year. He met me outside the East Broadway station and took me to a loud place filled with young people. He told me he was sick of New York and couldn’t wait to leave. The group playing pool just behind our backs kept screaming at the top of their lungs and Boris wearily pointed to them as the perfect embodiment of everything he hated about the city. I asked where he wanted to move to and he said the West. He was attracted to barren expanses. The novel of his which I’d written about took place in just such a locale, so perhaps he was giving his characters his own dreams. Willing them to go to the places he himself wished he could go.
The Whitney was just a couple blocks from my hotel. I sat on the windswept plaza outside reading a book while waiting for my folks to show up. A steady stream of taxis and towncars dropped off well-heeled museum visitors as hopeful cafe workers set up outdoor tables for lunch service. It had been drizzling and overcast all morning, so I doubted they’d have many takers. Despite the weather everyone was taking pictures of each other with expensive-looking cameras or selfie sticks. One man passed by several times, trailed by an entourage of young people, seemingly narrating his walk into his phone.
When my parents arrived we took the elevator up to the eighth floor. We spent more time on the decks of each level, looking out at the city, than any of the art inside, though the oversized candle wax sculpture of Julian Schnabel slowly melting—the remnants of his face already at his feet—was a highlight. We walked a bit along the High Line, which begins outside the museum’s entrance, then stopped for lunch.
We flew into Kennedy Airport when we came to this country back in 1978 so visiting New York with my folks will always have a particular resonance, but that journey felt even further away than the thirty-eight lapsed years as we said our goodbyes on the subway platform at 8th Avenue and 14th Street. They’d stay in town another day while I was headed back to LaGuardia and on to Chicago. After a couple days away I was ready to go home. I’m glad I went though. Maybe this traveling thing isn’t as bad as I always assume it will be. So long as it comes in small quantities.